During a recent Facebook Live video about the “Stand-Up Strike” against Detroit’s Big Three automakers, United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain announced, “We are winning, we are making progress, and we are headed in the right direction.” While the strike continues, Fain also said during that livestream about two weeks ago that the union had won new concessions in its negotiations with the automakers including a landmark move from General Motors to include its electric vehicle battery plants in the union’s national master agreement.
Since calling the strike in mid-September, Fain has been clear that the fight he’s leading is also rooted in faith and has sometimes quoted and referenced Scripture. Shortly before the strike began, he cited Matthew 17, where Jesus promises that, with faith the size of even a mustard seed, people can move a mountain. Fain believes that his union, with a similar faith, can move corporate executives to share record-setting profits with the people who work every day to make the vehicles that those companies sell.
For decades, working people in the United States have watched their share of the wealth they build shrink, even as profits for the richest Americans have soared. When working people stand up to say that’s not fair, they’re making a moral claim, one sometimes based on faith and the recognition that God is on their side in the fight for dignity and justice.
When Fain became president of the UAW, he was sworn in on his grandmother’s Bible. I’ve not seen that particular Bible myself, but some Bibles published in the mid-20th century, when a third of American workers were members of a union, came with an insert on faith and labor. I have seen those study guides that helped readers of the Bible find in the Scriptures the many verses related to justice for workers. Having preached those texts for 40 years, I know that faith is about more than inspiration for workers. Biblical faith also provides justification for the demands we’re seeing from Starbucks baristas and Dollar General workers, long distance truck drivers and autoworkers, hotel employees and culinary workers.
Isaiah 58 declares that, until any people commits to “loose the bonds of injustice,” it is impossible for God to repair the breaches in society. “Loose the bonds of injustice” is a biblical metaphor that is best translated in our own context as “pay people what they deserve.” It applies to UAW workers who are demanding a fair contract, to service workers fighting for a livable wage, and to the entire working class. Until we pay people what they deserve, the prophet says, we cannot hope to be well as a people.
UAW President Shawn Fain talks about his faith and how it helps drive him in his work during a Sept. 13, 2023 livestream, shortly before the strike was announced.
This moral principle, which echoes through all of our major religious traditions, suggests that a strike is never just a fight between the bosses and the workers. Because justice for workers is about the well-being of society as a whole, standing with the workers in their demand for justice is a matter of national security and equal justice for all. This is why it was right for President Joe Biden to “pick a side” and stand with the UAW workers on their picket line. Isaiah 10 says, “Woe unto you who legislate evil and rob the poor of their right.” Economic justice is, in the biblical vision, a political responsibility. While working people ultimately hold the power of their labor, we need leaders to help all of us work to loose the bonds of injustice. Even the bosses must come to see that it’s in their best interest to give workers a fair deal.
The moral argument for labor is, in fact, so strong that greedy elites have overall invested billions of dollars in efforts to shift the moral narrative of our faith traditions away from worker’s rights to a version of religious libertarianism. In his book One Nation Under God, Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse documents how the national Chamber of Commerce paid to build a network of preachers who would twist the Scriptures to serve business rather than labor. They preached “freedom” as liberty from government rather than emancipation from hard labor, as in Israel’s exodus from Egypt. The networks of churches and media organizations that have given us today’s “white Christian nationalism” have their roots in this mid-20th century effort to sever the connection between God and labor.
But working people are too intelligent to miss the connections between the Bible’s vision of justice and their own sense that the growing inequality of the U.S. economy is immoral. The Washington Post recently reported that, over the past 40 years, as the libertarian economics that we now call “neoliberalism” has been normalized and often backed by both major political parties, the gap in the death rate between the wealthiest Americans and the poorest Americans has grown by 570%. Poverty is now the fourth leading cause of death in the United States — ahead of homicide, obesity and diabetes — as we lose 800 people a day.
The New Testament book of James makes this essential connection between wage theft and unnecessary death. “The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, who you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts,” James declares as a woe against the greedy. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you, James says.
It’s not just unfair to withhold wages from working people. It kills.
Yes, “fairness” is a relative measure and has to be negotiated in different contexts. But anyone who tells you it’s fair that working people are dying while the richest among us rake in record profits has lost their moral compass.
It’s time for a moral reset in the U.S. economy, and working people who are directly impacted by the greed of the wealthiest among us are leading the way. Yes, God is on their side. But, as Desmond Tutu used to say during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, it’s time for all of us to join God on the winning side. It’s time to stand with workers in the moral fight for a more just economy.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
We've partnered with the publisher, Haymarket Books, and 100% of your donation will go towards supporting In These Times.
Rev. William J. Barber II is the president of Repairers of the Breach and founding director of the Yale Divinity School’s Center for Public Theology and Public Policy.